After nearly two years of mandatory masking on campus, the College announced on Feb. 23 that it will no longer require face coverings indoors for the remainder of the spring semester. The protocol changes, which went into effect on Monday, Feb. 28, also included a reduction in COVID testing for unvaccinated students, who will now be tested once a week instead of twice.
According to Chad Rynbrandt, the Vice President for Finance and Operations and a member of the COVID-19 Leadership Team, the Illinois state government’s move to lift the state’s indoor mask mandate on Feb. 28 factored heavily into the administration’s decision-making.
“Governor Pritzker’s recent decision to end face-covering requirements in most settings, combined with Wheaton’s own testing protocols and low COVID numbers, allowed us to make face-coverings optional,” said Rynbrandt in an email.
Beth Walsh, the Director of Student Health Services and the representative for Student Development on the COVID-19 Leadership Team, also emphasized the current low numbers of cases at Wheaton. “Our campus-wide COVID-19 numbers have remained low enough that we felt that this was also safe to do from a public health perspective,” said Walsh in an email.
On March 1, the College’s COVID-19 dashboard reported a total of 8 students in isolation after testing positive, down from a peak of 69 students on Jan. 20. COVID-19 cases have also decreased in Illinois during the same period, from a daily average of 32,000 cases during the height of the Omicron variant wave to approximately 1,900 on March 1.
Student opinions about the change in masking protocol varied. Junior archeology major Zachary Justice expressed relief and happiness at the COVID-19 Leadership Team’s decision. “This is the best thing that has happened on campus in quite some time. I’m glad to see everyone’s beautiful smiles,” said Justice.
John McCloskey, a business economics major, agreed. “Everyone seems way happier, honestly, and maybe that’s just me, but it seems like it’s a really cheery day. I’m excited for masks to be gone forever, hopefully,” said McCloskey.
Senior international relations major Emily Vogel also noted the positive mood on campus after she attended her classes on Monday, the first day without a mask mandate.
“Having no masks today and seeing people’s smiles made a huge difference,” Vogel said. “I felt like the whole atmosphere on campus was more upbeat.”
Some students felt the College should have adjusted their masking policy earlier. Senior philosophy and communications major Jeremy Chong argued that the COVID-19 Leadership Team should have made exceptions for students with natural COVID-19 immunity.
“I feel gratitude to God for the mask change, but not to the school, since the school is merely doing what it should have been,” said Chong. “I had COVID a few weeks ago, and although immune, I have been forced to wear a mask contrary to reason at the threat of being kicked out of class. This is due to the paranoid micromanagement of a COVID team I never subscribed to.”
Whether attending classes, walking through dorms, or chatting with friends in Lower Beamer, the vast majority of students chose to forgo face coverings on Monday. In Anderson Commons, students who had once dined behind plastic dividers or picked up plastic-wrapped to-go meals now talked and laughed at the salad bar and the ice-cream station without masks. In Blanchard Hall and Meyer Science Center, students engaged with professors, and marveled over seeing the bottom-half of their faces for the first time. In a mostly-full Edman Chapel, the student body worshiped joyously together on Monday, their singing no longer muted by fabric. The mask racks inside of Billy Graham Hall and Armerding Center stood like monuments to a bygone era, their wares hanging from pegs untouched as students strolled past on their way to class.
Although the new policy allows students to continue to wear masks if they feel the need, some felt more conflicted about the College’s decision. Freshman psychology major Reilly Thompson’s roommate has a congenital heart condition that would put her at a higher risk if she developed COVID.
“I think it’s great to finally see everybody’s faces,” said Thompson, “but with my roommate, I’ve been able to see both sides of being excited for it while still being cautious.”
Other students felt the change came too early. Junior psychology and Spanish major Stacy Roberts feels especially nervous about her job at Sam’s Cafe, where she comes into close contact with many fellow students as they order drinks and snacks.
“I think that the updated policy is a rash decision that puts people at risk of getting sick,” Roberts said. “Somehow a small strip of fabric is so debatable that people are fighting about it? As an employee, the change makes me feel unsafe.”
Rynbrandt acknowledged the fact that some faculty, staff and students might feel uncomfortable with the College’s decision.
“We expect many are relieved not to have to wear masks in most campus settings,” Rynbrandt said in an email. “But we know there are mixed feelings in our community, which is why we have provided ways to address personal health situations. We need to respect and extend grace to those still navigating unique health risks they or family members continue to face.”
For staff and faculty with health concerns, the College’s announcement provided a form they can fill out to require others to wear face coverings in their personal workspace, office or classroom. The employee must demonstrate that they or a family member for whom they provide care has one or more conditions the CDC designates “high risk.”
Alex Haskins, an assistant professor of politics and international relations, is continuing to mask while teaching because his young daughter is not eligible for vaccination. However, he believes his students can make their own decision on the policy.
“I’m not requiring students to mask,” said Haskins. “I figure my students are adults and can determine their own needs and those of others in ways that are in keeping with a Gospel witness.”
In the Feb. 23 announcement, the College also provided a link where students seeking “additional support” in light of the new masking policy can reach out to Student Health Services.
Walsh remains hopeful that the new mask-optional change will be lasting. “Currently, DuPage County is considered in the low level as seen on the CDC website,” she said in an email. “Unless our area is hit with a new variant, we will likely not need to return to masking in the near future.”